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Stravinsky at the Close

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Stravinsky at the Close

I have finally finished Taruskin's two-volume book on Stravinsky that he describes as "a biography of the works" and a spectacular project it is. I don't think that there is anything to compare to it for depth and breadth--other than the same author's Oxford History of Western Music. I would love for him to take on another big project, but after those two, we probably shouldn't expect anything more.

The last work he examines is the Requiem Canticles, written in 1966, towards the end of Stravinsky's life and his last major composition. The work uses Stravinsky's unique approach to the serial method. As requiems go it is brief, fifteen minutes long, but compelling. For some reason, before this morning, I had never listened to it. One of the things I take from my reading of the second volume of Taruskin is how much of later Stravinsky is still not widely known. Productions of his operas are not nearly as common as you would think and some works, like Les Noces, are so unusual that one suspects they have yet to find an audience. Stravinsky's early triumphs, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, are now over a hundred years old and have become recognized as the masterpieces that they are. But the later works are still infrequently performed--excepting popular ones like the Symphony of Psalms, now ninety years old!

When you think of it, describing pieces like The Rite or the Symphony of Psalms as "contemporary music" is quite absurd. Even the moniker "modern music" is a stretch. Reminds me of a famous essay "When was Modernism?" "20th century music" is at least accurate, if uninformative. A few years ago a couple of my songs were part of a concert described as "20th Century" music, but they were actually written in 2010, so "21st Century" music in fact.

We might recognize a few odd things about recent history: even before the First World War, there were some serious dislocations in European civilization heralded by Nietzsche's writings about the death of God and "master-slave morality." The most serious musicians were already dismantling the inherited structures of tonality and rhythm and searching for alternatives. This was an even more profound dislocation than was perceived at the time. Even though, between the two wars, a neoclassical synthesis was attempted, it never quite achieved the hoped for success and the canon of classical music was still dominated by music from the 18th and 19th centuries.

It remains the case that some really important music from a hundred years ago, and I am thinking of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920, are still, not only unappreciated, but uncongenial to the whole context of music in the 21st century. Instead of a growing acceptance of this kind of repertoire, we have a general lowering of musical taste to the point that music like this is not even disliked. Instead, it is completely unknown! In essence, music now is written by and for teenagers of very limited knowledge and experience. Billie Eilish is the embodiment of our current musical taste. I wonder how she will be regarded a hundred years from now?

Let's listen to two pieces by Stravinsky. The first, the hundred-year-old Symphonies of Wind Instruments:

and the over fifty-year-old Requiem Canticles:

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